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Mark Bowen’s First Interview: We know what’s needed

An extensive chat with our new manager

1 April 2022

In his first interview since being appointed, Mark Bowen spoke enthusiastically about the challenge of lifting our young squad towards the number one goal of staying in League One.

The vastly experienced coach, who will be assisted by Eddie Niedzwiecki, has proven that he can cope with the pressure of survival battles in the past, most recently when he led Reading to Championship safety.

Chris Thorpe caught up with Mark before he headed up north with the squad for the big game at Sheffield Wednesday and the full interview is below.

Mark, welcome to Wimbledon. You've joined at a very crucial stage of the season. What convinced you that this was the right opportunity for you?

I think first and foremost, just the chance to work with good people. The message is out there really that this is a different club, isn't it? It’s different with the club’s history, but there's also such a close connection between the fans, players and the staff. 

It’s a club with a project, a club that's ambitious. Everybody says it’s still growing, but it's growing in the right way. And there's still a lot more places for it to go. As a coach coming into that set-up, you quickly establish that, most importantly, we’ve got good young players. And then when you work with good staff and good people who are running the club as well, then in my mind, it's ticking all the right boxes.

You've met all the players now and taken training, but what are your first impressions of the group that you're inheriting?

I'm getting to know them. Obviously, every hour that goes by, you get to know them. So, I'm not going to sit here and mention any individuals. As a group, the one thing that stands out to me is that they're eager to learn, eager to progress, and eager to put things right.

I've been in the game a long time and when I was first approached about the chance to come to AFC Wimbledon, like any coach, you do your homework. You look at games, go online, look at stats, and start to look at all different things.

That's happened to me in the past many times. In the past I’ve gone into the details by looking at how the team’s progressing and what's going on. I won't mention names, but it can worry you because you look at them and you think, ‘are we going to start winning games with these?’ Clearly things are not going well.

During the brief time I’ve had to do my homework on the club, the squad, and the individual games, the shining thing coming through to me is that there was a lot of games I watched and I was almost wondering how they managed to lose those games? Some fans might think that's the problem. As a coach and as a manager coming into it, it gives you a lot of excitement, and a lot of hope that we've got the ability to turn things around. It's there in black and white.

I don't think we’re too far away from actually putting decent wins and points on the board, certainly enough to keep us in the league.

We’re currently in a situation that none of us want to be in, as you quite rightly acknowledge. Is it just a case of taking it game by game at this current moment?

Yeah, I think you’ve got to. If you give yourselves targets, you can easily let yourselves down and the players get frustrated with that. I said to the players this morning, and its standard stuff to think, that we’re in a six team league and we've got 30 days, seven games.

Plain and simple we've got to make sure we're not in the bottom four of those six teams. There’s pluses and negatives in terms of having a game in hand here, goal difference there, but all those things come together. You can only take one game at a time. It’s as simple as that, you’re building and building, and hopefully you can put points on the board as well.

Eddie and I have been in this situation many times over in the last 20 years. Invariably everybody knows you get a chance as a coach, as a manager because the previous manager hasn't done that well at a certain time. They find themselves in the bottom three. I think it's six times in the last 10 years of going into clubs who are either in or around the relegation zone.

So, it's not unusual to me. I’ve got a lot of experience of dealing with the group in the setup and working on those players mentally, physically and tactically. I'm used to it and I have a lot of experience of it. I think myself and Eddie know what's needed.

One of those previous clubs was Reading of course and you did really well to keep them in the Championship. How do you go about lifting groups of players when you come into that environment, and would you say there's a formula to staying up?

Not really, because I think genuinely, if there was an ultimate formula that worked then the likes of Sam Allardyce - who's seen as one of the best at doing it – would’ve seen things work out at West Brom. So, there's no hard and fast guarantees. 

But there are certain things that I know work with certain players. And again, there's two sides to it. Obviously on the pitch itself, which is the most important side but also the man management and the mental side of it. It’s about building relationships with the players and letting them know simple messages of what's expected them.

I think sometimes when players lose confidence, which they clearly do when a team's not winning, they end up doing things or trying to do things that maybe aren't natural to them. They get bogged down in certain ways. So, initially when you come into the building, it's about trying to give them simple messages to remind them that they're good players, but also not to complicate it too much.

Sometimes as a coach, we can all be talking too much. Sometimes it gets lost, it goes in one ear and out the other. So, I'm very much aware of that as well. We had the first training session today and I was pleased with what I saw. The difficult thing is that I’ve come in and we’ve only got 48 hours before we play Sheffield Wednesday. So you don't get a lot time to put any real sort of detail or tactics into it. It's just about making sure the messages you put to them are the right messages.

You mentioned your assistant Eddie Niedzwiecki. What would you say makes you guys function so well as a duo having worked together for such a long time?

The main point is we know each other so well. Away from the working environment with friends and family as well. We've known each other a long, long time. I know what Eddie's very good at and Eddie knows the things that I'm good at. I think we balance off each other well because, make no mistake, if Eddie sees things that maybe need saying, or if he's maybe got to look at things, he’ll tell me, and I think it's a healthy atmosphere. I’d say that to all the staff. My first impressions of the staff here are very good, so they are welcome to come in and give me information, not to be on the other side of my office door.

I want to have as much information as possible. It's up to me then to interpret it, take the good and maybe discard the bad.

We possess one of the youngest squads in the English football pyramid. Nevertheless, there's plenty of experience in the group. Would you say it's just a case of getting them to rediscover their confidence?

Yeah, I think so. I think any fan on the terraces and in the stand will look at players and know the qualities that they possess. It's actually the selections they make when they're on the football pitch, invariably the best players get those selections correct.

It’s just about helping them to get on the pitch and make those correct decisions at the right times. That’s the key thing with young players as well.

Momentum plays a massive role in football as we all know. What is your message to the fans as we embark on these seven games?

I’d only be saying something that everybody knows. I haven't even been to the stadium, not once yet. So, I'm looking forward to that. I’ve heard so much about the atmosphere, certainly the home games as well. I know the travelling fans give their voice and again that's one of the things that I’m really excited about.

I think that's going to play a major part. There’ll be clubs in and around us who aren't playing well, and their fans may show their frustrations and that affects the confidence of players. Certainly from what I know about the fans that come to watch our games, let's just say that the frustration will be shown far less to the players than maybe the other clubs around us.

I understand fans, they want to see their team win and anyone who goes to a game gets frustrated. But I don't think Wimbledon's fans are ones that actually start picking holes in their players. It's never going to happen. So that's a major advantage we’ve got.

Lastly, what do you know about the club as a whole and what convinces you that we can avoid relegation?

They've done it a few times over the past few years anyway. The one thing that convinced me to come – when the initial contact was made - was that it’s a club that rose as a phoenix from the ashes.

Everybody wants to pull in the same way. Even after 24 or 48 hours you can see that everybody has got a real feeling and a heart for the club and wants it to do well. So just to build on that is exciting.  I'm really looking forward to it. From speaking to the players this morning, I don't see any young players or players out there who are down. They’re disappointed, but they’re wide-eyed, keen and ready to put things right. So, we'll feed off that. We’ll feed off it as a group and we’ll feed off it with the fans as well. I’m looking forward to Saturday against Sheffield Wednesday, but just as much, if not more, the first home game against Charlton as well.

Mark, thanks for your time and we wish you all the best.

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